To First Lieutenant Kenneth James Spencer
Sorry I haven’t kept in touch. I’m not a very talkative guy, but I had no way of reaching you until now, anyway. I do think of you fairly often, and have done so over the years. We were only high school friends for a couple of years, and then pretty much went separate ways.
The reason I’m writing you now is because my college roommate keeps offering me an opportunity to send you a letter, to be placed at ‘The Wall’ on Memorial Day. I passed on it last year; but this year is different. I feel that I must try to remember what you died for and why. But I cannot answer those questions.
I’ll skip the politics, mostly; though I just have to say that I never thought it could happen again. While in reality, it has basically never stopped. Now it’s at the point that I no longer worry just about the future for our grandchildren. The present looks pretty dim, as well.
Still thinking of you and all of your comrades who died for no reason, it seems. May we avoid the useless repetition of the slaughter and rid ourselves of the parasites who profit from death.
Like so many others of my generation, I was profoundly affected by the Viet Nam War. I was lucky in that none of my family members or friends were killed. However, I had one experience of the awful suffering of some who came back from that War that has stayed me with over the years.
When I was 24 or 25, I volunteered in the bookstore of a progressive community organization. I was shy, a bit “wet behind the ears”, and intimidated by some of the folks who had been in the movement for a long time. One of the people I was most wary of was a man named Brian, who worked at the print shop. All I knew about him was that he had been a sniper in the War, and that he had tremendous guilt about what he’d done. I stayed away from him because the anger he radiated frightened me. I don’t think we spoke to each other more than a dozen times the whole year I was there.
One day, folks at the bookstore were trying to contact Brian but he didn’t answer the phone, so I was sent to the print shop to check on him. I have no idea why me instead of someone who was close to him. In any case, when I got there I walked in and saw him with a gun in his hand. He intended to kill himself, I assume—though I never knew for sure—because of the guilt. My memories of what happened are foggy because I was terrified. I remember pleading with him not to do it, following him around the print shop as he screamed at me to get out, and somehow being able to get to the phone to call for help. A woman at the bookstore who answered the phone said “Is he dead?”, and I remember answering, “No, but if someone doesn’t get here we may both be”. All I remember after that is people rushing in a few minutes later and me leaving the building. I don’t even know if Brian and I ever talked about what happened.
Over the years, I’ve wondered what happened to Brian, whether he finally committed suicide. Recently, I found out that he had made a life for himself. He’d become a respected investigative reporter; he’d married; he’d been loved. I know that by the memorial his wife published. Sadly, he died from a heart attack when he was only 42. But I think his heart was broken decades earlier in Viet Nam because of the things he was trained to do by his government that he could never forget.